This article first appeared on Forbes
If you’re like a lot of women I meet, you probably wonder what happened to the confidence you once had. You remember the days when you felt pretty good about yourself. Things seemed to be under your control—you were doing well, you had time to do things you enjoyed, and you know what, you even liked the way you looked.
And now you’re exhausted and overcommitted. You compare yourself to others and feel worse about yourself. You doubt your decisions and capabilities, and that nagging guilt or shame shows up every time your child struggles, your boss has negative feedback or your clothes don’t fit.
If you relate in any way, rest assured, you’re not alone.
In fact, you’re in the company of millions of brilliant women who can’t see past their flaws and imperfections. They focus more on what they have not done, or did not totally nail, even as they push themselves harder and harder to get it all right all the time. No wonder, there’s always something to remind them that they’ve failed. Again.
So what changed? Was it kids? It’s true that the double burden of motherhood and management does affect women in a particularly draining way. Was it work? Rising seniority presents women with a unique set of organizational and interpersonal challenges, not the least of which is the double bind of competence and likeability. Or was it age? After all society tells us how we should be—trim, extroverted and wrinkle free, all the while ordaining the importance of “being who you are.” Authenticity is no longer intrinsically driven—it’s one more expectation that we’re striving to meet.
I’ve done many years of research on women’s confidence in the workplace, and I’ve found that real authenticity (how ironic that authenticity can be unreal!) is indeed the bedrock of expansive confidence. The kind that grows with age and perspective. That’s not dependent on the external validation of success or approval. That’s at peace with who you are and driven to shine your light in the world.
As women, we’re mostly disconnected with who we are—a journey that begins almost the day we’re born. Even as little girls, we’re sensitive to the emotions of our caregivers that make us question ourselves. We’re eager to please and look for cues on who and how we should be so we get that elixir of praise. By the time we reach adulthood, many of us are disconnected with our own sources of joy and brilliance, and trying to win approval from our partners, our children, our bosses, friends, colleagues… From society at large.
This is the realm of “Fragile Confidence” —a type of high confidence that’s heavily dependent on external validation because it’s underpinned by deep-seated beliefs of unworthiness. Many high-achieving individuals are not aware of these subconscious feelings precisely because of their successes. As life unfolds, and these successes become fewer and farther between, given the challenges both at work and the impossible balance with life, the masks begin to slip, deep-seated feelings begin to surface, and confidence begins to unravel.
As a women’s wellbeing and leadership coach, I see many women at this stage in their lives and careers. Immensely capable, incredibly accomplished women who keep doubting themselves. They’re pushing themselves to burnout, and feeling out of control and unhappy in almost all aspects of their lives. Their inner critic is loud, but they feel unsure and uncomfortable with the idea of relating to themselves with kindness. Life is one constant effort to prove themselves—and it seems that nothing is quite enough to get them the approval they seek.
If that’s you, here’s the good news. The stuck-ness you feel can be a pivotal moment of change if you make a conscious decision to embark on the journey back home to yourself. The challenges you face are not small by any stretch of the imagination. Nor are they going away overnight despite efforts to bring about change in homes and organizations. The best chance you have of quickening the pace of change is by owning the power to orchestrate it.
This means building your inner resources so you thrive despite the challenges. The research is clear on this—when competence is underpinned by positive self-worth, it leads to secure striving, grit despite failure, the desire to support others and upward spirals of lasting confidence.
One of the best ways to get started is by committing to be a little kinder to yourself. To be less harsh on yourself when your body needs a break. To be less judging of yourself when you don’t measure up to your own standards of perfection. As you fill the hole in your heart, you’ll find that you release yourself from the hunger to impress or please, and give yourself the permission to live and lead with the best of yourself.